Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico are lively and fun yet intimately combined with spiritual practices and a reverence for the holiday season. By understanding these customs, it is possible to embrace the Puerto Rican culture whether you want to add an international flair to your celebrations, become connected to your heritage, or simply learn more about a fascinating culture.
About Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a small island archipelago in the western Caribbean and is part of the Greater Antilles. As a commonwealth of the U.S., Puerto Rico is not independent, but it does have a unique and expressive culture that combines rich traditions from the U.S., Jamaica, and Cuba, as well as influences from French, Spanish, Italian, and South American immigrants. These multiple influences give Puerto Rican traditions a unique and colorful vibe and create a joyous and charismatic holiday season.
The majority of Puerto Ricans practice the Roman Catholic religion, and therefore many of the island's Christmas traditions are familiar to other Christian practices. At the same time, however, Puerto Rico has a good percentage of Islamic and Jewish citizens, and many native Puerto Ricans practice African tribal religions. All of these faiths can be found in the island's holiday customs.
Celebrating Christmas Traditions in Puerto Rico
Christmas in Puerto Rico is more than just one day of good food, gift-giving, and quality time with friends and family.
Key Holiday Dates
The holiday season in Puerto Rico begins as early as late November and continues until mid-January, with a series of related celebrations and holidays. Some of the most significant include:
- December 25: Christmas Day is a public holiday in Puerto Rico, and businesses are typically closed. This is a day for spending time with close friends and family members. The date holds significance for those who practice the Christian faith.
- December 28: This is the Day of the Holy Innocents and commemorates the day that King Herod ordered the slaying of male children in Bethlehem. Special masses are held on this day. In the town of Hatillo, a carnival of sorts of held. Men dress as Herod's soldiers and fake kidnapping the town's kids. People then give the faux-soldiers treats and candy to get their children back.
- December 31: New Year's Eve is a time of new beginnings throughout the world, and in Puerto Rico, legend says that anyone who can eat 12 grapes during the chimes announcing the New Year will have good luck. A traditional poem called El Brindis del Bohemio is read on New Year's Eve. It is even broadcast across the country's radio stations.
- January 6: Three King's Day, or Dia de Reyes, celebrates the magis' visit to the Christ child. This is a day when children will leave cut grass or hay beneath the Christmas tree as a gift for the tired camels. Gifts get left for children on this evening. Throughout the day, the Governor's Mansion in San Juan is open to the public with refreshments, music, decorations, and toys for the children.
- December 15th-December 24th: Dates where Misa de Aguinaldos are held. Misa de Aguinaldos are special Catholic masses.
Making Merry Music
Music is an essential part of many Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico. Not only do many religious masses include sacred carols, but traveling groups of parrandas will visit family members and friends while playing lively Latin and salsa carols on bongo drums, guitars, and other instruments. At each home, revelers celebrate for a time with more music before moving on to the next destination, and the group of musicians will grow with each visit.
Christmastime is a time for Aguinaldos. These are popular Christmas songs played around the holidays. Villancicos are religious tunes that are common during the holiday season.
Mass Is Part of the Christmas Culture
Holy masses are a very spiritual part of many Puerto Rican Christmas celebrations. During the nine days up to Christmas Day, devout Catholic individuals will attend "Misa de Aguinaldo" daily to celebrate different holy carols and holiday messages. Misa de Aguinaldos masses contain traditional Puerto Rican musical instruments like cuatro guitars and a percussion instrument called a güiros. These special pre-Christmas masses are typically performed at dawn.
A midnight mass on Christmas Eve is also something that many Catholic Puerto Ricans take part in. This mass, called Misa de Gallo (or mass of the rooster,) is a fun mass filled with Christmas carols, a nativity play that children participate in, and plenty of candles.
Food is a vital part of the holiday traditions of many countries, including Puerto Rico. The traditional Puerto Rican dish of Christmas is called lechón asado. This meal is made of roasted pork cooked over a spit. It is typically served with arroz con gandules, a dish that includes rice, pigeon peas, and pork cooked in a sofrito sauce. Pasteles also make an appearance on dinner tables during the holiday season. A pastele is dough made of mashed green bananas. It is commonly filled with meats and cooked in banana leaves.
Traditional desserts and beverages are also served during Christmastime in Puerto Rico. Coquito is similar to eggnog. It is made with rum and coconut milk. For a sweet after Christmas dinner treat, Puerto Ricans consume arroz con dulce, a type of rice pudding, and tembleque, a coconut custard.
Decorations for the Season
Christmas trees, colored lights, and poinsettia plants are popular decorations during the holiday season in Puerto Rico, as are wooden carvings of different saints, The Three Kings, and the nativity scene. It is common to see lots of greenery dotting Puerto Rican homes in the month of December. Special clothing may also be worn as part of holiday decorations, such as the straw hats traditionally worn by parrandas. This hat is referred to as a pava.
Adding Puerto Rican Traditions to Your Home
It is easy to add Puerto Rican holiday traditions to your home, whether you are celebrating your own unique culture or embracing a new one.
- Try traditional foods as part of your holiday menu, such as coconut custard, rum cake, or pork dishes.
- Go caroling with family members and friends, and include some Latin-inspired carols as part of the music.
- Celebrate the holiday season into the New Year and enjoy Three Kings' Day on January 6.
- Send Christmas cards with a Caribbean flair and wish everyone "Feliz Navidad." Spanish is one of the official languages of Puerto Rico, and it is the most widely spoken.
- During the holiday season, play festive traditional Puerto Rican music.
A Colorful and Vibrant Culture of Cheer and Festivity
From festive music to lengthy celebrations to rich foods, Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico are heavily influenced by several religious and cultural factors. With such a rich culture, there is a bit of holiday cheer from Puerto Rico that everyone can celebrate.